The Scarlet Letter

Two questions:

  1. Did Puritans really make adulterers wear the letter?

  2. If so, were men forced to wear it or only women?

Apparently yes and it could be applied to both:

On December 7, 1641, Thomas Bray and Anne Linceford both confessed to committing adultery in the absence of Anne’s husband. Their punishment included an immediate severe whipping at the public post in Plymouth, a second whipping at the public post in Yarmouth (where the act was committed), and the wearing of “two letters, namely, an AD, for Adulterers, daily, vpon the outside of their vppermost garment, in a most emenent place thereof” for as long as they remain in the colony (PCR 2:28). Failure to wear the letters would result in another whipping.

From here, which has several more examples. ( very interesting page as a whole, actually )

  1. Yes

I looked for articles about “puritans and adultery” on Google Scholar ( and also via a library database catalog. You can access Google Scholar online for some of of the items but you could also check what databases your local public library has available (through their website or in person) and use your library card to obtain for free any articles that are listed through subscription databases. The resources below might be of interest; the first one indicates that yes, the Scarlet Letter “A” was for real and also reviews some punishments for men for other offences:

Curious Punishments of Bygone Days by Alice Morse Eagle. Published in 1896 this book is available entirely online for free at Chapter 7 which starts on page 86 is about the “Scarlet Letter” and covers offences that required letters to be visibly displayed on clothing.

“Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts” by Jules Zanger found in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jul 1965), pp. 471-477, published by Omohundro Insttiute of Early American History and Culture

“Hawthorne and Puritan Punishments” by G. Harrison Orians found in College English, Vol. 13m, No. 8 (May 1952), pp. 424-432, published by National Council of Teachers of English.

“Sex and Social Order: The Selective Enforcement of Colonial American Adultery Laws in the English Context” by Carolyn B. Ramsey in Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society. New York (1996) published by Alfred P. Knopf.

Finally, it appears that wearing an “A” was a punishment for the lucky. According to two adulterers were executed instead in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.